Staunton, January 23 – The recent statement by Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peshkov, that “there are things more important than laws” is the latest sign of a fundamental shift in Russian governance from the dictatorship of laws that Putin promised when he came to office to a dictatorship of morality resembling the situation in Iran and opens the way to totalitarianism.
Even in a dictatorship of law, Mikhail Fishman points out in a commentary on Slon.ru, the authorities can be highly selective in enforcing this or that provision, but law remains an important benchmark for society. But under a dictatorship of morality, that restriction is gone and the authorities are freed even from that restriction.
This “Iranianization of Russia,” the commentator argues, is opening the way to the revival of totalitarianism in which law is merely a formality and not something Russians can count on.
Five or six years ago, Fishman says, Russians would have assumed that the actions of the authorities and courts would involve the selective use of law so that the powers that be could get their way. But now, it is increasingly clear to them that legal formalities are “secondary” to those other things which Peshkov says are “more important than law.”
What are these things? According to Fishman, “the chief one is the archaic and fundamentalist idea that any alternative to the uniquely true point of view is intentionally amoral” and that the authorities need not defend their position but those who oppose them must try to do so even while the authorities are denouncing them as immoral.
“Justice instead of law is a broad moral sanction,” he continues, because it allows the Russian courts to dispense with even “the public demonstration of legality” and replacing it instead with propaganda about doing the right thing. That reduces the importance of law and opens the way to an ugly past.
“Mutating in this way,” Fishman continues, “the Russian political system has already passed from one stage to another;” and the implications of this shift go far beyond the way in which the authorities are using the courts and the judicial system more generally.
For example, the Moscow analyst argues, this has led to “the new intensification of fighting in the Donbass,” something that has taken place not so much because Putin wants it but because, as Gleb Pavlovsky noted, the Kremlin leader “has fallen victim to his own propaganda and his regime has fallen into the trap of its own moral imperatives.”
Russia’s “sovereign democracy” of the 1990s, Fishman says, would today be “correctly described as hybrid with its fake decorations formally constructed on legal principles.” As a result, the Russian government looked for provisions in the legal code to bring charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky but now it feels no particular need to find them.
These imperatives have consequences which even their authors do not recognize in advance, Fishman says. Thus, “in place of a virtual war for spheres of influence is beginning a real war [and] the words ‘party’ and ‘fraction’ are losing their meaning to the extent that the parliament has become accustomed to voting unanimously.”
All this resembles what happened in Iran under the ayatollahs, but there is at least one reason for thinking that “the term ‘Iranianization’ is not completely appropriate.” And it is this: Iran has been moving away from that even as Russia moves toward it. No one in Moscow wants to think about the implications of that, Fishman concludes.